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Planting the Flag: Naming Black Los Angeles' Neighborhoods (or Not)

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A mural in Leimert Park. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The official roster of ethnic enclaves in L.A. and SoCal that range from Koreatown to Little Saigon in Orange County has just gotten bigger with the addition of the El Salvador Community Corridor, a ten-block stretch of Vermont Avenue between 11th Street and Adams Boulevard. The designation comes at the behest of Salvadoran community and business advocates who want to band together to do two things simultaneously: embrace their roots and create an economic engine for a somewhat overlooked and still impoverished Latino demographic in a city in which the dominant Latino group is Mexican. The idea is to make the Salvadoran scene visible and also an attraction for people who want to visit ethnically distinct but tourist-friendly (i.e., non-white) parts of the city that give us our well-deserved reputation of being the most diverse city in America.

"Diverse" is a word that gets under my skin -- excuse the expression -- because it's one of those post-'92 terms that's based on the idea of black inclusion but never seems to achieve it.

Nor is anyone really looking to achieve it anymore; increasingly, diversity seems directed at immigrant and religious groups, not blacks who in many ways are still living as marginally as Salvadorans who fled the civil wars of their native country back in the '80s. I get the shift. The immigrant narrative is clear and distinct, the move from there to here easy to trace. Most importantly, Americans see immigrant history as separate from their own (however flawed that view is), a simple story of people under duress seeking freedom and opportunity in a land built on that notion. However much we grumble about "illegals" and undocumenteds, immigration as a concept bolsters our positive self-image of being good, expansive, and worthy.

The black narrative is the opposite of that and always has been. It is complicated, tortured, unresolved, and an integral part of the American narrative that doesn't exactly make anybody feel good, including blacks themselves. And yet we do consider black culture -- soul food and such -- as ethnic because of its undeniable African roots. Even the ubiquity of hip-hop and other thoroughly commodified aspects of black culture haven't entirely erased that sense of ethnic specificness. Indeed, that is hip-hop's appeal.

It's a strange position to be in. The newly christened Salvadoran corridor reminded me of similar but ill-fated efforts undertaken by some African Americans in the aftermath of 1992, when blacks were casting about for the best ways to rebuild a community that had frankly been in decline for decades. Then came a proposal to re-name Leimert Park Village, a one-block collection of shops, music, food, arts and so forth, as African-American Village. The argument went that Korea had Koreatown, Thais had Thai Town -- it was high time blacks had something like that for themselves, something to boost their own visibility and economic potential. On the surface, it was a no-brainer.

The idea never went anywhere. There were many reasons why, but I think at bottom there was a reluctance among everyone, black and otherwise, to admit that blacks in L.A. were, after many generations, more like immigrants than we care to admit. Declaring our cultural distinctiveness with a special district or corridor would also declare to the world our enduring isolation in cities like Los Angeles that have always kept us at more than arm's length. When it comes to the modern idea of diversity, blacks are still on the outside looking in.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.